How to strengthen a story idea

3974310450_ca7f340f7eI had this interesting question from Kristy Lyseng on Twitter: What would you do if you’ve tested your story idea and realised it wasn’t strong enough?

Once upon a time, an idea caught your eye. You wanted to spend tens of thousands of words exploring it. Maybe you now can’t remember that, or the work you’ve done has left you weary and muddled.

If we’re talking about an idea that hasn’t been written yet, the first thing I’d do is make it new again. Recreate the gut ‘wow’.

OMG I must write this

I forget everything I’ve tried to do with the idea so far. I identify what grabbed me when the idea was fresh and new.

I also forget what anyone else has done with it, if they have. It’s easy to end up intimidated by other treatments, especially if I’m frustrated. I disregard all that and find what originally demanded I work with the idea.

I create a mood board. I write down random phrases, images, dialogue snatches that the idea suggests to me. As a shorthand I might note moments from other novels or movies, or snatches of music. Anything to capture the excitement I first felt.

Make it fun

The chances are, I’m disappointed with the pointless work I’ve done so far. Ideas will flow better if I’m not reproaching myself. After all, the original idea came unbidden.

le moulin 2555As much as possible, I make this process feel like play. Instead of typing on a computer, I write by hand. I often use the gaps in expired appointments diaries, scribbling notes in a different-coloured pen, or using the pages upside down. This lets me brainstorm without judging the results. Or I go somewhere I don’t usually write – cafes, a bench overlooking a view, a Tube train.

If you use Pinterest you could also start a board for your idea, but I’m not disciplined enough and will probably get lost on a browsing spree. :)

Where to take the idea?

Once I’ve made the idea feel new again, I start thinking about where it can go.

I start new lists for

  • characters and what they want
  • themes
  • settings
  • dramatic events that fit with the idea.

Batteries recharged, I can now face looking at what others have done. I search on Amazon for books tagged with keywords. LibraryThing has even better tags – here’s the page for My Memories of a Future Life and its tags, which I can click on to find other books that tackle the same subjects. (I would do the same on Goodreads but haven’t been able to work out how.) I also use the website TV Tropes (here’s how I use it to fill gaps in my story outline). All these resources will suggest the kinds of events, characters, conflicts and quests I could have.

Importantly, they’ll also help me discard some possibilities. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I get a heartsink feeling whenever I look over some of my notes. Clearly I’m not interested in that aspect of the characters’ world, even though other writers have tackled it. So I’ll play it down.

When is the idea strong enough?

Ultimately the idea is strong enough when I know:

  • who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
  • what people are trying to do
  • how it will get worse
  • what the setting is
  • why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
  • a rough structure – what kicks off the drama and various twists that will form the turning points. Sometimes I decide the end beforehand, or I let it find itself once I’m writing.

You might have covered all these bases but the story still seems limp. In that case, beef up the material you have -

  • increase the stakes so that the goal matters more to the characters
  • make it more difficult for them to get what they want
  • turn up the conflict between the characters.

You don’t have to get it all instantly

villa saraceno 131

Compost – for now

This is important. Some ideas need to be shut away and wiped from your fretting brain. If the idea looks feeble, don’t junk it. Give it a sabbatical. The Venice Novel, which I talked about in the TV Tropes post, has worn out my ingenuity for now so I’ve put it in the deep compost department. Meanwhile another novel I thought I’d worried to shreds has – to my surprise – woken up with real substance. I’m working on the detailed outline. For now I’m calling it The Mountain Novel.

Partner it with another idea

Sometimes an idea doesn’t have enough juice on its own. But it’s still worth working it as far as you can. A few key elements in My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form 3 began as separate story ideas. Negligible on their own, they harmonised perfectly in a bigger work.

Don’t be afraid to restart

Sometimes we go wrong with an idea or get lost. If I’m in the early stages, trying to work out what to do with an idea, I return to the pure inspiration and look for a stronger angle. If I’ve already drafted and the story doesn’t seem to matter enough, I look at ways to turn up the heat. (Speaking of which, thanks for the distillation pic Brankomaster.)

Have you had to strengthen a story idea? What did you do? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. Book 2 is now under construction – sign up for my newsletter for details as soon as they become available. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

 

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  1. #1 by Dave Morris on January 6, 2013 - 8:23 pm

    All good advice, especially about adding conflict. Of course, often the feeling that something is wrong is our cue to go and think of a better scene or plot twist.

  2. #3 by Pamela Cook on January 6, 2013 - 8:32 pm

    Great post. Thanks so much for shaing. I love the idea of using pages in old diaries and the whole scribbling random thoughts and snatches of music. I need to do a lot more of this creative “play” rather than focus on the words and plot the whole time. When I’m stuck on a plot issue I always ask ‘How can I make things worse?’ for my character. Sometimes the answer is completely ridiculous but other times it pushes the story forward and creates another complication. Going back to character profiles and digging deeper helps too.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 7, 2013 - 8:18 am

      Thanks, Pamela! I like the idea of going back to character profiles – reminding you of something peculiar to them that might cause more trouble. I was reading about writer teams on TV shows and how they often brainstorm deliberately irreverent ideas – because that way they make bold breakthroughs that become brilliant twists.

  3. #5 by YKG on January 6, 2013 - 10:56 pm

    Some great advice here! I’d offer one more tidbit in the immortal words of John Profit, “if you want someone to love you, open your heart. If you want someone to obsess over you, close it.”

    I’ve often find that characters, themes and scenes for one book, crowd my mind constantly while I’m working on another. Shortly after putting any project down and turning my full attention away from it in favor of another project, I find new interest in the old project again. Snatches of scenes, ways to improve others that I felt had gone sour, dynamic and interesting new plot arcs, all crowd into my mind while I’m trying to focus elsewhere. It’s a kind of marvelous distraction that insures when I do return to the old project my appetite will definitely have returned for it.

    So I would say, don’t be afraid to walk away and give the story a chance to chase YOU for a while!

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 7, 2013 - 8:20 am

      What a brilliant way to put it, YKG! I’ve often used distraction to solve small story problems. Some of my most fruitful creative days have been had while doing a batch of mundane proof-reading. While I’m concentrating on ps and qs, my characters are hammering on my brain with new ideas for what to do.

    • #7 by z. l. sasnett on January 13, 2013 - 12:43 pm

      That is a brilliant way of putting it.

  4. #9 by Kathleen Pooler on January 7, 2013 - 1:01 am

    Roz, I appreciate your practical approaches to keeping story idea inspiration alive which seem to be associated with working around ourselves ,I.e, Avoid reproaching oneself, treat ideas like play, vary writing methods. In other words, figure out ways to get back in touch with what inspired the idea in the first place. My favorite is ” give the idea a sabbatical” , letting it marinate until you are ready to get back to it with fresh eyes. Thanks for a great post!

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 7, 2013 - 8:22 am

      Thanks, Kathleen! You’re spot on – when we first have an idea, it took us by surprise. It probably wasn’t sweated out after hours of hair-scrunching. Recreating those conditions is the best way to get back to that unpressured state of mind.

  5. #11 by Lorna Dounaeva on January 7, 2013 - 2:31 pm

    I wish I had tested my 1st novel before I wrote it! I went up all kinds of blind alleys before I finally got it under control. For my next one, I plan to be more disciplined and think my idea through properly before I set pen to paper (or should that be fingers to keyboard?) Thanks for sharing!

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 7, 2013 - 8:56 pm

      My pleasure, Lorna! I did the same with my early attempts. I’ve learned to do a lot more thinking and experimenting before I start producing actual text. Have fun with your new improved process.

  6. #13 by James J Parsons on January 7, 2013 - 4:07 pm

    Great post, and timely. I’ve been having second thoughts about a large three phase project I’ve set myself to–which in turn was a “reboot” of a novel I’ve had knocking around my head for a decade. Something isn’t working, and I need to find out what–this is some great direction for me. I’d planned on writing a similar post soon, I hope you won’t mind if I quote you from this one?

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 7, 2013 - 8:57 pm

      Hi James – glad the post helped you! I’d be flattered if you discuss my post and link back to it here – don’t forget to email the link to me as I’m curious to see how your scenario plays out!

      • #15 by James J Parsons on January 8, 2013 - 6:42 pm

        That’s great. I’m planning a post for tomorrow–I’ll be sure to link back here of course, and will let you know when/where it goes live.

  7. #16 by Candy Korman on January 7, 2013 - 8:18 pm

    Solid advice!

  8. #18 by Sally - aka Saleena on January 9, 2013 - 12:16 pm

    These are great tips, Roz – thanks for sharing.

  9. #20 by Mike Cairns on January 10, 2013 - 9:03 pm

    Hi Roz
    Great post, thanks, lots to think about.
    In my current quest to get various things ready for publication, I’m having enforced breaks from certain projects. Despite my frustration, it’s making me work through plots and character development (in my head) far more than I would were I able to just sit and write. Having the down time is definitely a plus, so long as it doesn’t last too long!
    It’s also interesting to hear about your brainstorming techniques. This is something I think I should be doing, but just can’t. I find that once I’m writing, the characters tell me what they want to do and away we go, but trying to plot too much before I begin is a dead end. I love that there are so many ways to do the same thing!
    Cheers
    Mike

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 11, 2013 - 8:52 pm

      Hi Mike! There are indeed so many ways to do the same thing. Like you, I often have to spend time on other projects, and if I get to a good tipping point I can be overwhelmed with ideas for my novel in progress. It’s as if the brainstorming starts without me! Other times, I need to rein in the confusion and get back to basics.

  10. #22 by Sheryl Gwyther on January 11, 2013 - 6:22 am

    Roz, there is so much great advice here it’s literally bursting at the seams. I’m just launching into planning a story from the glimmer of an idea so your post came at the best possible time. Thanks you! :) Now, to get cracking on a plan!

    • #23 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 11, 2013 - 8:53 pm

      Thank YOU, Sheryl – it’s always nice to hear my ramblings have helped. Have fun with your glimmer.

  11. #24 by John P Kealing on January 11, 2013 - 8:39 pm

    Hi Roz, thanks for your insightful article and link to LIbraryThing. I hadn’t thought of doing that type of research. My first novel is going through many different processes right now. I’ve got characters, places, events planned, some in great detail and some still lingering in the dark recesses of my mind, yet to emerge from the composting process.

    I’ve had to strengthen and sharpen my story idea several times during its incubation. I’ve done this by asking myself “If this was happening in reality, as if I was the character or being subjected to the circumstances I’m blabbing on about, would I really care? Would it evoke a significantly powerful response from me? From others around me? Would I feel compelled to “right the wrong”? or resolve the conflict? Or recruit the help of key people to investigate, to seek revenge, to pursue the matter with all my substance?

    If I answered yes to one or more of these questions then I figured that I was not meandering too far from the literary gem field – I was still within the mining lease so to speak – and had a good chance of being able to find that elusive stone and being able to shape, facet and polish it to a stage where it was ready to be fixed into a setting.

    Cheers, John

    • #25 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 11, 2013 - 8:54 pm

      Hi John
      That’s a very good idea, giving yourself reality checks. One of the biggest problems we have as writers is tunnel vision, and the more we can step outside what we think ought to happen, the better. Keep doing that – it will serve your novel well. And good luck!

  12. #26 by charlotterainsdixon on January 13, 2013 - 11:47 pm

    I agree with the idea that you “don’t have to get it all instantly.” It can be a good thing to put the novel away, as you suggest, and I also submit that many ideas for story and character come out in the overall writing. There’s something to be said for pushing through and seeing what comes up.

    • #27 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 14, 2013 - 1:45 pm

      Pushing through… that’s a great point, Charlotte. Sometimes we need to refuse to take no for an answer. I’ve had great ideas because I’ve kept my butt in the chair.

  13. #28 by Barry Hoffman on January 16, 2013 - 11:11 am

    There’s not much I can add to this excellent article. All writers have ideas that sound wonderful on first blush, but on reflection just may not work. I, like many other authors, jot down these ideas and at some future time look at them again to see if I’ve unearthed any fresh perspective. Sometimes some fabulous idea may not be enough for a novel. It might work for a short story or a subplot for a novel. And, sometimes no matter how often you look at the idea nothing worth writing comes to mind. Such is the life of a writer.

    • #29 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 16, 2013 - 3:29 pm

      Barry, you’re right. I’ve got a stack of those ideas, but some of them have become very useful as co-stars or walk-ons in a novel. Thanks for stopping by!

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